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11.5: Virtue Ethics on Stealing

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  • As a normative moral theory, Aristotelian Virtue Ethics was explored in Chapter 3 and, as with all of the theories discussed in this chapter, it is important to read everything here in the light of issues raised there.

    The virtue ethicist is not interested in the moral status of individual actions, but rather is interested in the character traits and dispositions of the person performing those actions. Using reason to work out the virtuous Golden Mean in the different spheres of life, Aristotle suggested the following as virtuous and non-virtuous (vice) character traits.

    Feeling/Emotion

    Vice of Deficiency

    Virtuous Disposition (Golden Mean)

    Vice of Excess

    Anger

    Lack of spirit

    Patience

    Irascibility

    Shame

    Shyness

    Modesty

    Shamefulness

    Fear

    Cowardice

    Courage

    Rashness

    Indignation

    Spitefulness

    Righteousness

    Envy

    Situation

    Social conduct

    Cantankerousness

    Friendliness

    Self-serving flattery

    Conversation

    Boorishness

    Wittiness

    Buffoonery

    Giving money

    Stinginess

    Generosity

    Profligacy

    Thus, those who engage in the act of stealing on the basis of righteousness, courage and virtuous patience may be considered moral, whereas those who engage in the act of stealing on the basis of rashness, shamefulness and irascibility will not be considered moral. This reveals something interesting about the application of Virtue Ethics to stealing. According to Virtue Ethics, the very same act, performed by two different people, can be viewed differently from a moral perspective.

    Take the act of stealing a loaf of bread from a supermarket, and then passing that loaf to a hungry and homeless woman on the street nearby. If a person commits this act out of self-serving flattery, then they act in accordance with a vice of excess. Yet, if someone else commits the very same act of stealing, but does so on the basis of righteousness and generosity, then they act in a virtuous way. This example is over-simplified, but the point is hopefully clear.

    One of the bigger worries regarding Virtue Ethics is its lack of specific guidance, and this worry would seem to be at its most acute when it comes to seeking advice from Virtue Ethics over an applied ethical issue such as stealing. After all, how are we to determine if our stealing a loaf of bread would be based on righteous and generous character dispositions, or reflect rashness and self-serving flattery? How can we ascertain what the virtuous course of action would be in a specific situation?

    One possibility is to look to the actions of virtuous people for guidance, but this raises the troubling issue of subjectivity. For example, if I view St. Augustine as virtuous, then I may view his complete aversion to stealing as representative of the Golden Mean. Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) says of Augustine that:

    It appears that, with some companions of his own age, he despoiled a neighbour’s pear tree, although he was not hungry, and his parents had better pears at home. He continued throughout his life to consider this an act of almost incredible wickedness. It would not have been so bad if he had been hungry, or had no other means of getting pears; but, as it was, the act was one of pure mischief, inspired by the love of wickedness for its own sake.5

    Stealing for petty reasons looks to be the height of non-virtuous behaviour. However, if I view the fictional character Robin Hood as the paradigm of a virtuous person because of his willingness to steal from the rich in order to give to the poor, then I may have a different view as to which actions the virtuous character trait of generosity would give rise to. Or, more extremely, if I view a famous fictional pirate of the high seas as representing a virtuous individual, my views would once more be different; how do we decide which of these people are the right people to seek virtuous guidance from when it comes to stealing? Aristotle can refer to practical reason (phronesis) and human flourishing, but this may be a serious weakness.

    In addition, we might wonder how to act when virtues themselves seem to clash, as well as when the advice of possible virtuous people also seems to clash. An act of stealing might seem to be both courageous and self-serving, or both brave and rash. Resolving how to act requires use of practical reason, but again this language might be thought unhelpful by the critic of Virtue Ethics as it is still being unhelpfully vague.

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